It was just about 20 years ago that the Vic Viper, the world's best-known alien-armada-killing single-pilot spacecraft, flew her maiden voyage in the original Gradius. That game is hardly the first side-scrolling space shoot-'em-up, but it's a genuine arcade classic, since it features genre-defining gameplay, graphics, and sound, as well as a healthy bit of strategy in its power-up system. Over the years, Gradius spawned a bunch of sequels and spin-offs, the latest of which is a PlayStation 2 game that pays homage to the series and its fans. It's true that Gradius V is best suited for nostalgic fans of old-school arcade action games--games whose controls were instantly accessible and whose storylines could be contained in a sentence. However, this is an excellent action game by any standards, and it serves as an important reminder that it's the action that really matters in an action game. To that end, Gradius V's particular brand of hard-boiled shooting mayhem is so intense that it can keep you breathlessly entertained for as long as your extra lives don't run out.
Gradius V was developed by Treasure, a company with a long history of putting together great shoot-'em-ups, and most recently best known for its work on Ikaruga, an innovative vertical-scrolling shooter. Fans of Treasure's past accomplishments or of previous games in the Gradius series certainly won't be disappointed by Gradius V, a game that definitely stays true to the series' roots, and yet wraps up a traditionally frenetic and very tough gameplay experience in modern trappings. That is, Gradius V lives up to the Gradius name, in that it carries the series' signature traits, including two-player simultaneous play, the Vic Viper itself, the unique power-up system that's the hallmark of the series, tough stages filled with environmental hazards as well as numerous enemies, and plenty of tough boss opponents. All that's missing are the Moai, those things that looked like the statues on Easter Island.
At the same time, Gradius features some of Treasure's signature touches. As in Ikaruga, boss opponents erupt into blinding, cataclysmic explosions that dramatically bring the game's frame rate to its knees. The game is also surprisingly suspenseful (the first time you visit its stages, anyway). Just when you think you've seen the worst that a given level has to offer, something even crazier occurs. It's brutal going from start to finish, but you'll constantly run into unusual twists, each one seemingly more nefarious than the last.
There's no way you'll finish Gradius V the first 10 or 20 times you play it, even if you set the difficulty to the "very easy" setting and crank up the maximum number of lives and crank down the point totals required to earn more. Even at the easiest setting, the game is still tough. The key to success in the game is one part reflexes and hand-eye coordination, and one part repetition and memorization--which is true of any self-respecting shoot-'em-up. Fortunately for Gradius V's longevity (and, indeed, for you), you can't just continue indefinitely and reach the final confrontation on your first try. Instead, you're going to run out of continues long before you reach that point--but for each hour's worth of time you spend with the game (progress is automatically saved to your memory card), you earn an extra credit. That means the next time you play, you'll have a few more extra lives and a little more practice under your belt, so maybe you can make it a few minutes deeper into the experience. All told, Gradius V takes less than a couple of hours from start to finish--but it's going to probably take you about eight or 10 hours to reach the ending for the very first time. On top of that, the game's various difficulty settings, unlockable weapon edit mode, and the two-player simultaneous option give the game a respectable amount of lasting appeal.
This is a simple game at heart. Your ship will always face to the right, and just about all you can do is move it in eight directions and fire away. Ironically, while your ship's facing never changes and the screen scrolls automatically, sometimes the stages themselves begin to rotate or move in various directions. So just when you think all Gradius V has to offer is right-to-left-scrolling backgrounds, it'll take you for a spin. Also, despite the seemingly mindless nature of its shoot-anything-that-moves game design, Gradius V actually features a significant strategic element in its weapon configuration and power-up system.
When you first begin play (or when you use a continue after all your lives are spent), you'll get to choose from one of four different weapon configurations by default. The main difference between these is in how you'll be able to control your multiples (also known as "options" in some of the other Gradius games), which are invincible floating drones that follow your ship and multiply your damage-dealing potential by adding to your firepower. In the first weapon configuration, your multiples will normally trail behind you but can be locked into place at any time by pressing and holding R1 (by default). This action proves very useful for when you need to protect a particular quadrant of your ship, and it actually requires a fair bit of finesse to master. Type two is the most impressive configuration, since it lets you adjust the angle of your multiples' fire when you press and hold R1. So while the Vic Viper is forced to shoot straight ahead at all times, the multiples can be firing in any direction you like. Type three spaces your multiples above and below you, and you can spread them out or draw them closer by toggling R1. This lets you either fan out your firepower or concentrate your damage on a single target. Finally, type four lets you make your multiples orbit around your ship like a shield, which certainly looks cool, but unfortunately, this isn't very helpful since your multiples don't actually deflect enemy fire. Nevertheless, it's interesting to experiment with each of the available ship configurations as you're inevitably forced to replay the early stages of the game.
You can have up to four multiples fighting alongside you, and unlike all your other power-ups, you don't automatically lose these little guys when you blow up. Instead, they're left behind in the wake of your destruction and with your next ship (and its few seconds of temporary invincibility), and you'd be wise to snatch them back up. Or, in two-player mode, you can grab your buddy's multiples if he gets blown away, which is one way to test your friendship. Multiples are really the key to the game's depth and strategy, as well as the key to your survival in the game. When the screen starts scrolling in different directions and you're still stuck shooting straight to the right, unless you've got a few multiples on your wing to help you blast through the alien odds coming at you from every direction, you'll be dead in no time. Perhaps it goes without saying that Gradius is a one-hit, one-kill type of game; no life gauges here, as even the tiniest enemy bullet can blow you to smithereens. Actually, there's a life-saving force field power-up that lets you withstand several hits, but even this won't save you if you crash into one of the game's many environmental obstacles.
Force fields and multiples, like all power-ups in the game, must be earned by collecting a certain number of power-up capsules. A simple speed boost power-up requires only one such capsule; meanwhile, the laser upgrade to your beam weapon takes several. Each available power-up is highlighted in sequence as you pick up more power-up capsules, and all you need to do is press a button whenever the power-up you want is selected. Amazingly, this can be easier said than done, which is part of where the game's challenge comes from. You often just can't afford the luxury of glancing down near the bottom of the screen while playing this game--there's just that much danger in the air. So you'll need to memorize the power-up sequence and count up to the ones that you want, just as you'll need to memorize each of the game's eight grueling levels and their various stages.
The boss battles are a highlight of Gradius V, as well they should be. The most powerful foes you'll face here unleash a ridiculous hail of bullets, lasers, and missiles upon you, oftentimes as the screen itself rotates and undulates confusingly. It's all kind of like the teacup ride at the county fair, only a lot faster and nastier. At any rate, the bosses in Gradius V are an interesting lot in that they all have some sort of noticeable yet well-protected weak point on which you'll need to concentrate your fire while desperately trying to stay alive. It can be very difficult to survive for long in this game, but if it's any consolation, your ship has a very small hit frame--which is to say, unless a shot hits you dead on in the center, you'll survive. This leads to numerous incredible near misses throughout the game, especially as you stave off the gaggle of weird, abstract boss spaceships at the end of the game's stages.
For what it is, Gradius V has few flaws. There's almost no story here, and yet the beginning of the game's second level has a brief yet frustratingly unskippable cutscene that interrupts the pacing of the game. Also, the fully 3D graphics--while crisp and clear for the most part--occasionally make it difficult to tell what's part of the background and what's part of the foreground (for example, which objects can kill you instantly if you touch them). Rest assured that you'll learn what's what the hard way. Otherwise, though, Gradius V is a good length for a shoot-'em-up, as too many more stages than this would be unbearably difficult to memorize. The unlockable weapon edit mode also serves as a nice treat for all your efforts; in it you'll find a number of previously unavailable power-up options, including several throwbacks to earlier Gradius games.
Gradius V is actually filled with some great throwbacks to previous installments in the series. If you haven't played those old games in years, then expect to see some eerily familiar opponents and to hear some familiar musical cues. And while the nostalgia trip can be nice and all, Gradius V actually looks and sounds impressive by today's standards. The onscreen action is expertly choreographed to an excellent futuristic-sounding musical score that fits the against-all-odds theme of the game and really enriches the gameplay, overall. It's no accident that most of the sound effects, except for a monotone announcer who states whichever power-up you've selected and often chastises you when you run out of lives, are understated compared to the stirring music. As for the visuals, they're sharp, colorful, and detailed. There are a few scant instances of slowdown (not including the purposely show-stopping, end-of-level explosions) and really not much in the way of sheer variety--but Gradius V is a fine-looking game for what it is, with its smooth frame rate and intriguing enemy ship designs.
If you weren't playing these types of games 10 or more years ago, then it's true that you might not appreciate Gradius V as much as someone who was. However, if you fundamentally agree with the notion that action games should deliver challenging, intense experiences that reward cool under fire, practice, and skillful play, then you'll like Gradius V no matter what. It's a loving tribute to a classic series and to a style of gaming that may be old fashioned, but judging by how fun this game is, one that certainly isn't obsolete.